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How to Treat & Prevent a Sunburned Scalp

By Amalah

I noticed that in your latest column about dandruff, you never mentioned that it might not be dandruff at all, but a sunburned scalp. I don’t know about other people, but I know that if I don’t cover up where my hair is parted, it’s going to burn, flake, and imitate dandruff. I can’t always wear a hat or headscarf to cover it up, and if I brush my hair backwards into a ponytail, temporarily covering all of my scalp, it still “falls” into a center-parted style. So I end up with a sunburned head.
Are there are any good sunblock products for scalps? I’m already sunblocking my body and my face, so why not bring it all the way up to the top of my head?
– Anna

While I don’t think sunburned scalp was the answer for our dandruff sufferer (it sounded too chronic, too pervasive and redness wasn’t a big issue), this IS a timely question, as guess what happened to me this weekend at the beach? OW.
In the rush of trying to pack everything that a toddler might possibly need for a beach vacation (including back-up rain activities and the classic Picky Eater Bag of Groceries Because Who Knows, They Might Serve Linguini Instead of Spaghetti, Oh, The Horror), I forgot my hat at home. I stayed mostly in the shade of our beach umbrella, but alas, I burned through the thin baby hair of my hairline and along my part. Did I mention the OW?
A sunburned scalp is annoying, but did you know it also damages your hair follicles and affects the health of newly-growing hair? So if you’re chronically burning there now, at some point you’re going to be stuck with really unhealthy hair that breaks easily. So no matter how much you hate hats and scarves, WEAR THEM whenever you’re spending long periods of time in the sun. (Or in our case this weekend, long periods of time in the hazy morning fog, which made my head EXPLODE when I noticed that dozens of people waited until the haze burned off to start applying their sunblock. OH MY GOD, YOU PEOPLE. HAZE IS NOT UV PROTECTION.)
So yes, a hat or other head covering is the best way to prevent your scalp from burning. Pulling your hair back in a ponytail can work, provided you use a styling product or barrette to keep your part from…uh, parting, like you mentioned. I’ve also got a strong, ponytail-and-clip resistant part, so I usually add a snappy barrette up front to keep it together, or I slip on a wide fabric headband. Maybe not the most attractive things in the world, but they work.
If you absolutely cannot wear a hat or headband or any other scalp-protecting accessory, a spray sunblock is usually your best bet. They’re still greasy, but go on clear instead of white and goopy. (Although MAN do they run out quickly, especially if you reapply outside, in the wind — you waste SO MUCH PRODUCT ARGH.) Spray it onto your fingers and then dab it along your part and hairline.
shiseido.jpgA few products out there claim to be non-greasy and formulated for scalps and hair, but I’ve never personally used them. If you’re curious, check out Sundition Scalp Sunscreen or Shiseido Refreshing Sun Protection Spray SPF 15.
While we’re tangentially on the subject — what about sun protection for your actual hair? Well, I’ve read conflicting advice on this. Technically, your hair is dead tissue beyond a few growing cells at the base of the root. There’s really nothing for the sun to “burn.” And I personally think most of the summer “damage” many of us see is more from chlorine, saltwater, sweat and some extra drying effects of the weather (i.e. we need to switch to a richer conditioner for the season), not actual “sun damage.” And yet check out Sephora’s stash of sun protectant sprays for hair, all claiming various claims of thermal protection and UV protection and sun reflectivityosis. So while I would never recommend y’all hit the beach with a giant bottle of Sun-In and skip the deep conditioner at the end of the day, some of the “sun protection for hair” stuff seems a bit snake-oily to me. But hey, I can’t completely knock something I’ve never tried. (Although I CAN warn you that 99% of those sprays do NOT contain any actual ingredients proven to protect your skin from UV rays, so do NOT use these to protect your scalp unless it’s labeled with an actual SPF level.)
And finally, what to do about an already-burned scalp? If it’s a really bad burn, take some ibuprofen. Spray some Solarcaine or rub a fragrance-free moisturizer on your part before bed. Try to avoid blow-drying, rough-bristled brushes (use the plastic rubber-tipped kind instead) and tight, hair-tugging ponytails. And keep your hair as product-free as possible, since most of them contain alcohol that will only make the drying and peeling worse.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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